In the car on the way back from her presentation at Madison High School, Natasha Trethewey admitted (admitted? Hang on!) that she is more interested in social justice than in poetry. “Poetry,” she said, “just happens to be my medium.” Cue reverie. Just a minute. The medium is the message, right? It’s a platitude, but for good reason. Better to say the medium chooses the message. The message, too, chooses the medium. Cybernetics of art. Form is function. Moments beg for poetry, and poetry demands moments, and the slightest stirrings of movement, which beg to be versified. Right? Journalism and the book-length nonfiction essay necessarily are forms better adapted to issues of social justice. What can poetry hope to accomplish in that sphere?
Then: slow down, Stephen Dedalus. You get too theoretical at times. None of this changes the fact that Trethewey’s poems, besides standing alone as horrifying and often eerily beautiful moments, also offer powerful but subtle arguments. There is something in the way she writes so convincingly from the perspective of the outsider, or the invisible insider, that lends her poems a social efficacy normally monopolized by the exposé.
None of this came up explicitly in the Madison library, where Trethewey delivered a moving lecture to something like 60 attentive but perhaps understandably reticent high school students. But it was all there somehow.
It’s a beautiful space, that library. Student artworks abound. A whole phalanx of chairs had been set up (the front row of which, of course, was vacant), and somebody had made a nice big banner, the words “Welcome Natasha Trethewey” in green paint on yellow butcher paper. Mary asked whether I could film the talk. “If you make me look good,” Trethewey replied. I hope I met her terms (video later; I’m having trouble embedding it).
Trethewey began the talk by inviting student questions. There were a few moments of silence (the Pulitzer is intimidating, even to high schoolers), and then somebody raised his hand and asked which poems she would be reading. At that point she read a few poems. From the first lines it was clear that she is a powerful reader of her own poetry, fluid, precise, emotional, only breaking for breath between an article and a noun when it really means something. For the most part the students were all ears after that. Trethewey is especially skilled at segueing seamlessly and evocatively from poem to explanation to anecdote to poem; she flexed those same muscles that night at the Schnitz, but if anything that particular talent was even more in evidence in the Madison library. High schoolers will giggle at times and zone out. But for the most part the whole thing was stirring and pleasant, and the kids seemed to have fun. At one point a boy, whose name unfortunately I don’t recall, stood up and delivered one of Trethewey’s poems with some real force. The poet looked delighted.
It was when she shifted the focus to Beyond Katrina, her newest book of personal essay/poems, that Trethewey’s preoccupation with social justice came to the fore. “When I say Katrina,” she inquired, eyebrow raised, “what’s the first thing that comes to mind?” One bold student raised her hand and said, “New Orleans.” (My response was the same.) Trethewey explained that that is the answer she always gets, when in fact the hurricane made landfall first on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, her own birthplace. She briefly described the tragedy of the wind damage, the wave damage. Then she explained that it was only when the storm struck New Orleans, unleashing the “man-made” disaster of the floods, that the national media began to report the story in earnest—a horrific neglect on the part of the American journalistic establishment. That’s why, in this word-association exercise, people tend to respond with, “New Orleans.” A brief silence followed her explanation in which one became aware of a small enlightenment, a kind of unspoken collective “Ohhh.” After that, the talk took on additional social overtones, but there was no decline in questions regarding Trethewey’s personal history.
The presentation ended on a rather subdued note—not glum, not bored, but subdued. Trethewey signed a few copies of Native Guard, posed for a picture with a number of teachers; then, on her way out, she was approached by a very timid young student who thanked her for speaking so candidly about the loss of her loved ones. It was a touching moment, and I was glad that we left the school with that fresh sense of personal connection.
Still, it was perhaps the intense curiosity her biography inspires that prompted Trethewey to make the remark about social justice. The conversation in the car turned to the highly personal nature of many of the high schoolers’ questions. She mused that to some extent she probably invited such questions, since much of her poetry is more or less explicitly autobiographical.
There might be something to that. A few of the questions posed at that evening’s lecture at the Schnitz were of a similar nature. In fact, the whole lecture tended to resemble a more cavernous, glittering version of the talk at Madison. I should probably clarify: what I mean to say is that I was impressed with Trethewey’s refusal to coddle the Madison students, her willingness to believe that they could benefit from the same kind of quick-moving, nuanced, and at times rather cerebral lecture she delivered at the Schnitz. I think they did. I know I did.
I didn’t get a chance to chat with Trethewey at the reception following the lecture. Her attention was constantly occupied. I watched as she spoke to her admirers, animated and genial as she had been that morning. I wondered occasionally what kinds of questions they were asking. But it struck me that, ultimately, it wouldn’t matter; a poet like Trethewey engages on all levels, and no matter what it is specifically that arouses your interest, she leaves you with something, a few glimpses of a life, a small doubt where before there had been dull credulity. And, for those of us aesthetes for whom the medium really is the meat of the matter, the lingering beauty of her language.